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Theodor Diener, who discovered the viroid that causes spindle tuber disease, dies at 102

Finding something infinitesimally tiny is never easy. But it’s much harder when the searcher doesn’t know what to look for. Theodor Diener, a plant pathologist at the federal Agricultural Research Service, faced that problem when he began investigating spindle tuber disease, a disease that makes potatoes scrawny and misshapen, as Daniel E. Slotnik reports in this news story in the New York Times.

Dr. Diener, who was 102 when he died on March 28 at his home in Beltsville, Md., worked for years to find the culprit, resulting in the discovery of the smallest known infectious agent, which he named a viroid.

Spindle tuber disease, which was first identified in the 1920s, sometimes causes disastrous consequences for crops. Studies show that the ailment can lower potato crop yields by up to 64 percent; only strict quarantining, and in some cases destruction of entire crops, can contain this highly contagious illness. But even decades after the disease was identified, scientists were still not sure what caused it.

Dr. Diener and colleagues like William B. Raymer at the research service, part of the Department of Agriculture, spent most of the 1960s trying to solve the puzzle.

After identifying the viroid that caused spindle tuber disease, Dr. Diener helped develop a test to detect it. He went on to receive the National Medal of Science from President Ronald Reagan in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House in 1987.

Source: The New York Times. Read the full story by Daniel E Slotnik here
Photo: Since Dr. Diener’s discovery, scientists have identified more than 30 different viroids that cause diseases in plants. Credit University of Maryland via The New York Times

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